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Music in search of the way home

Johannesburg-based artist Itani Thafeli, better known as Itai Hakim, has always explored the idea of finding and remembering home through his music. In 2014, as part of the now-defunct folk duo 8 Bars Short, he released Khombela. The guitar-driven number sees Hakim and former bandmate Pelonomi Moiloa sing about their yearning for home and their desire to map out their ancestry.

“Hi to ti akela, ndlela ya hina. Hi lava ku tivha leswi nga hindza. Mara vokokwana vha fambili, nava tswari avaswi tivi,” sings Hakim. Loosely translated this means, “We will build our own way. We want to know what came before us but our grandparents are gone and our parents do not know.”

He concludes by asking, begging almost, to know where — in the ancestral sense — he comes from.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with ‘home’ and its attendant ideas of identity. Whenever the topic comes up, I tell people I’m Venda, without anything except that particular stated noun as proof.

I can hardly speak a word of the language, and last year was the first time in my adult life I’d set foot in Tshaulu, the village where my father grew up. I suppose it was bound to be that way. When my father left home three decades ago to plant himself in Johannesburg, he knew it was for good. As a survival mechanism, he learned as many languages as his tongue could wrap itself around, and when he met my mother, who speaks isiZulu and is from KwaZulu-Natal, it only made sense to raise me and my siblings as Zulu and speak Johannesburg’s lingua franca.

Perhaps that’s why, to this day, my father can’t speak of home without it stirring a deep sense of loss inside of him. Our existence meant he had to supplant his own. And the home we grew up in exists, in some sense, at the expense of his own.

Still, in my case, the yearning for a home away from home still demands to be felt. Sometimes it’s something as little as a cashier responding to me in Tshivenda and the disappointment in their faces when I explain to them that my command of the language is non-existent. Other times, it’s a bit weightier, like a dream I had not so long ago.

In this dream, I’m in an anonymous part of my father’s village, surrounded by what I imagine to be distant relatives. The blue is pulling away from the sky and I’m trying to explain something in a combination of broken Tshivenda and isiZulu. At some point, my tongue feels leaden as I try rolling it around a certain word to no success. The tongue is a muscle that acts out of memory. It can’t remember what it never knew in the first place.

For his part, Hakim’s music also dares his listeners to remember. In 2015, he released Ni Songo Xela, a folksy number that implores the listener never to lose sight of home. The song, with its sparse guitar melody and haunting Tshivenda lyrics, sees him seeking counsel from an elder who tells him not to get lost in the woods and always remember the way back home.

“Ni songo xela is Tshivenda for ‘don’t get lost,’” Hakim said in an interview with Power FM. “I wrote the song with my grandfather and he was saying, in the same way a child getting lost in the woods in a rural homestead would be cause for concern, you should be careful not to lose your way in the city. The woods represent the city and he was advising me to always remember home.”

But home in this sense is more than just geography. It is the warmth of familiarity, the impulse to let your guard down in a world that would demand otherwise, and a safe haven to run to in stormier times. Hakim not only encourages the remembrance of this “energy” in his music, he reckons we should all actively pursue it.

Ntodeni, which means “look for me” in Tshivenda, is a song he recorded to complement Ni Songo Xela. “It’s basically the ancestors saying ‘look for me’. So, while you have ‘lost your way’, it’s possible to tap back into the warmth that comes with finding home.”

It’s a heartening and encouraging thought. If Hakim’s music is to be believed, which I am inclined to do, perhaps sometimes, the things we search for most are also pursuing us and calling us to a place we can finally know as home. 

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